MAGPIE program makes classroom feel like home for Saskatoon students


“In this class, I'm learning my language, my beliefs and I'm also with people who are also interested in the same things. It just feels like family.”

As Tianna McCabe descends the stairs to the lower floor of Nutana Collegiate, a familiar scent fills the air. Smudging is something McCabe does every day with her family, but in the past few weeks it’s also become part of her daily school experience.

Starting class with a smudge is just one way students involved in the Saskatoon Public School Division’s new Indigenous culture and language program are made to feel welcomed.
Teacher TJ Warren speaks during a MAGPIE Program class, which gives students at the Saskatoon Public School Division’s high schools the opportunity to learn more about Indigenous culture.Liam Richards / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

The MAGPIE program, which stands for Manifest Academic Growth and Promote Indigenous Excellence, is a new initiative that gives 30 students from any Saskatoon Public School Division (SPSD) high school an opportunity to head to Nutana Collegiate during school hours to practice culture for credit. The first classes were offered this month.

What class looks like isn’t firmly defined — ideas for a curriculum are shifting over time as students and teachers collaborate on what the course means to them and what they hope to take from it.

For McCabe, a Grade 11 student at Bedford Collegiate, having a school experience that’s reflective of her life is something she’s been fighting for since she entered high school.

“At first I didn’t know that the program was going to be what it is now: An environment that’s already made for us,” she said. “I feel comfort. It’s like being home. You know you’re meant to be here because everyone looks like you, everyone kind of has the same views as you, everyone has been through the same things you have been.”

That relationship-building is crucial to building a comfortable space for students to explore their identity, said teacher T.J. Warren.

“It opens up a lot of avenues for the students to be able to express themselves,” he said. “We look at these children as our relatives. Those types of relationships are important in building trust and letting them know we understand them and we value their knowledge.”

MAGPIE builds on the success of SPSD’s Indigenous Ensemble, an after-school extracurricular program for students in grades seven to 12. Now in its seventh year, the program originally focused on performance, but expanded to include language and cultural education. Nearly 200 students took part in the 2018-2019 school year.

MAGPIE students spend mornings at their home schools, then meet at Nutana every afternoon. During a day of classes this month, they discussed and contrasted how society views Indigenous youth and how Indigenous youth define themselves.

The name MAGPIE itself comes from the former; teacher Candace Gadwa says society sets Indigenous youth aside and doesn’t give them the tools or support they need to succeed.

“We can look outside right now and see a magpie and kind of just ignore it or not really think anything of it,” she said. “But when we really pay attention to it and watch it, we can see its beauty and its resilience and we can see that it’s a smart being. That’s kind of how it is between society and how we’re trying to be towards our students.”

Rachel Erimine, a Grade 12 student at Nutana Collegiate, said she was excited to learn how to introduce herself in Cree. Ermine, who has always wanted to hold a conversation in Cree with her grandfather, said being enrolled in MAGPIE has given her a chance to connect with culture in a way she wasn’t able to before.

“I grew up not really knowing anything about Indigenous culture or where I came from. A few years ago I decided I really wanted to get more into it,” she said. “In this class, I’m learning my language, my beliefs and I’m also with people who are also interested in the same things. It just feels like family.”

Providing an affirming space to learn and grow means students leave the classroom more confident and with a better understanding of themselves, Warren said.

“A program like this gives opportunity back to our people, to reclaim who they are, through their cultural practices and their world views,” he said. “We’re trying to create opportunities for them to to create those foundations, those resurgent moments.

“When they have that, it’s something they can rely on to navigate through their life.”